Many would agree, we’ve made so much progress since the earliest days of AIDS, but with conditions. Culturally and legally, being LGBTQ is not as dangerous as it once was, although hate crimes still occur. Living with HIV is no longer a death sentence, but stigma remains. And when it comes to access to care, countless numbers of Americans continue to fall through the cracks, despite better medications and the ACA.
Without community will and leadership from heroes willing to step outside their own comfort zones, the needle doesn’t move enough to change much of anything for the better. It takes someone like the late Steve Chase (1942-1994), renowned interior designer and art collector, and his very public devotion to helping people struggling to stay alive in the choking shadow of AIDS in the Coachella Valley.
Each year through his namesake gala, Desert AIDS Project (D.A.P.) acts to keep Steve Chase’s benevolent spirit thriving.
Like so many other wealthy, successful, and handsome gay men of his time, Steve Chase could have opted for the safe comfort of silence. He had a magnificent home with several large closets he could have opted to hide in. He had money and connections across the globe. He could have ignored what was happening.
Instead, he became the most iconic benefactor D.A.P. has ever known.
“Steve could make a connection with anybody,” said Kathy McCauley, one of D.A.P.’s founders and its first RN.
According to many who were there, lesbians worked the hardest to help bring relief to the gay men who were dying of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Regardless of their jobs, they organized and mobilized the community, and were often the first ones to comfort the dying when others were too afraid.
Nurse McCauley liked Steve Chase instantly, and because she wore many hats, finding housing for patients and fundraising were included in her job duties. The two would regularly view apartments they were considering for patients who were either kicked out of their homes or unable to find housing because of their HIV status.
“The apartments are fine,” he’d say. “But they must have remodeled kitchens; the residents will need to have a place where they’ll want to cook and eat.”
Even then, housing and food insecurity represented huge areas of need for the clients of D.A.P., and it remains the same today. But seemingly, Steve Chase knew that the solution is community involvement.
Despite vacation rentals, casinos, and resorts, the Coachella Valley is a tough place to live for low-earning residents regardless of their HIV status (e.g. $24,000 per year for a single, or $41,566 for a family of three). One accident or illness can mean the loss of employment or housing, leading to a chain reaction that translates into diminished health and functioning.
People living with HIV today have the privilege of a full life expectancy, but only if they are taking medications consistently, have restful sleep, a roof over their heads, nutritious meals, and meaningful engagement with others. Getting behavioral health assistance from a culturally competent psychologist or counselor when necessary is also vital.
D.A.P. is in its largest expansion ever. Currently it serves about 4,500 clients, but by 2020, that number will rise to about 10,000. The need is great, as poverty is a common thread linking all our clients, regardless of HIV status.
By looking at a few of the countless acts of generosity over the last 25 years at The Chase gala, we can honor those who have indelibly changed the lives of those less fortunate, and we can see part of the evolution of Desert AIDS Project as we know it today.
Thanks to The Chase in 1994, D.A.P. was able to open a satellite office in Indio to provide HIV screening, as well as early intervention and case management services. Cultural taboos, language barriers, and distance can make the trip to the D.A.P. campus in Palm Springs daunting.
By providing a discreet location with culturally competent staff who understand and empathize with the East Valley community, D.A.P. is using an old tactic from the early days.
According to Kathy McCauley, D.A.P.’s first clinic at 610 S. Belardo Rd. was doing the same thing—operating discreetly. Located behind the same complex where Revivals Palm Springs is today, Sun Plaza was the home to The Desert Sun newspaper back in those days.
Due to stigma, they operated without signage or advertising. “They had no idea what we were doing in there,” said McCauley. “They would have closed us down immediately. It’s funny that there were reporters working there,” and no one seemed the wiser.
Thanks to The Chase in 1998, local philanthropists responded by enabling the acquisition of our current 44,000 square-foot campus in Palm Springs to meet the demand to serve more and more people struggling to get the care they needed. Overcrowding at the old clinic on Vella Rd. was hampering efforts to adequately serve the need.
But the Vella Rd. clinic, opened a decade earlier, had been a breath of fresh air for many reasons. Unlike the Belardo Rd. clinic, which had to operate in secrecy, the Vella Rd. clinic was able to operate in plain sight of the community. In fact, it was resplendent. Steve Chase’s notoriety, passion and financial support had begun changing the lives of those struggling with HIV / AIDS.
Silk wallpaper and near-priceless paintings by artists like Cézanne created an atmosphere so dazzling that, perhaps for just a moment, patients suffering from AIDS were made to feel as though they were important and worthy of beauty.
Steve Chase had built a thriving practice on the magic created by thoughtful interior design. Seeing serenity in the eyes of a D.A.P. client with AIDS as he or she gazed at the features of the Vella Rd. office likely was its own reward.
Thanks to The Chase in 2001, the Morris and Lila Linsky family acted to address food insecurity for patients of D.A.P. Difficulty finding and keeping work is very common for people living with HIV, but thanks to the Linsky family, more than 300 D.A.P. clients are given healthy food, grocery vouchers, and dietary guidance every month.
Thanks to The Chase in 2007, philanthropist Philip Caplin helped fund the new Vista Sunrise Apartments on the D.A.P. campus. This was a major step toward making D.A.P.’s holistic vision for treating the whole individual, a reality. It also was in line with the original vision, shared by Steve Chase.
In the earlier days of the epidemic, it wasn’t just residents who faced housing discrimination. Local humanitarians who tried to house them faced just as much backlash, and possibly worse.
Moved by community action, Fred Hardt turned the Palm Springs hotel he owned into a respite for AIDS patients. His residents were isolated and given poor treatment by a medical system that was still years away from understanding the HIV virus or how to treat people who have it.
Dr. Bruce Lloyd, one of D.A.P.’s founders and its first physician, described a time when doctors were either too afraid to treat an AIDS patient, or they were outright forbidden to attend to them. Both he and Kathy McCauly, then an RN, had been told by their supervisors at the County of Riverside that they were not allowed to see AIDS patients. This did not deter them from volunteering and then working full time for D.A.P.
Bob Edwards, a resident with AIDS living at Fred Hardt’s hotel, told The Desert Sun in 1984 “I ran into prejudice, ignorance, and selfishness among hospital attendants,” he said. “But it wasn’t their fault; they don’t know any better.”
Although the Palm Springs City Council eventually rescinded its efforts to close Hardt down, Hardt would soon lose his hotel because of finances and eventually would lose the battle with the virus himself. It didn’t last long, but Hardt’s humanitarian gesture helped spark a movement to ensure those living with HIV / AIDS had housing.
Thanks to The Chase in 2008, philanthropists Georgia and Gerald Fogelson funded the first adult HIV-specialty dental clinic in Riverside County.
Thanks to The Chase in 2012, philanthropist Annette Bloch funded a cancer care center dedicated to specialized HIV-related cancer research, screenings, treatment and prevention.
Thanks to The Chase in 2015, our community and donors open The DOCK, a walk-in clinic that provides HIV and STD testing, treatment, and prevention.
Thanks to The Chase in 2016, our community and donors helped launch the D.A.P. Hepatitis Center of Excellence to manage, support and cure those living with Hepatitis C, which kills more Americans today than HIV does.
How Did Steve Chase Build His Empire In Palm Springs?
Steve Chase had built a thriving, 20-person interior design business based in Rancho Mirage with international clients before his death in 1995. His success did not happen overnight. After beginning in interior design in L.A., Chase was hired by Arthur Elrod, the premier interior designer and founder of Elrod and Associates in Palm Springs. For 15 years, Chase was able to further develop his style, his reputation and his cache of international clients who trusted his vision implicitly.
Arthur Elrod and Associates was responsible for the interiors of some of the most notable country clubs, hotels, and midcentury modern homes in the Coachella Valley. Beginning his firm’s Palm Springs legacy with Lucy and Desi’s Rancho Mirage home in the 50s, Elrod was designing the interior of the hilltop Bob Hope Estate in Palm Springs, at the time of his death in 1974 by a drunken driver.
Perhaps most notable is the Elrods’s own home, the Arthur Elrod House, also designed by architect John Lautner. It is featured in the 1971 James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever”. As 007 outmaneuvers Bambi and Thumper in the film, viewers can drink in mid-century design elements throughout, as well as footage of a much less developed Coachella Valley floor below. Elrod was close friends with Bob and Dolores Hope, and both of their iconic homes, designed by architect John Lautner, are in the same gated neighborhood overlooking highway 111.